Or, how Stuart McLamb learned to stop worrying and love the song. The NC combo releases its long awaited third album, Ruby Red, on Merge this week.
BY JORDAN LAWRENCE
Stuart McLamb is 10 minutes late when he calls and asks for a ride. The Love Language frontman walked out of his apartment in Carrboro, N.C., to find that his van wouldn’t start. The writer waiting for him at a nearby coffee shop isn’t surprised. He’s heard of McLamb’s persistent automotive woes through common friends. He jumps into his car, and in a few minutes he and McLamb are standing by the bar in another caffeination parlour, waiting on a pair of Americanos.
The singer looks tired and disheveled. When he seds his sunglasses, he reveals red eyes ringed by bags so dark they look like the beginnings of corpse paint. His black hair is mussed and sweaty, and his white T-shirt, cut wide at the neck, clings to him in stubborn wrinkles, suggesting that he wore it through the night. The barista is a friend, and he informs her of his late night, a Tuesday that stretched into the wee hours of Wednesday and included at least eight libations. At this point, he trips over his own white lie, letting slip that a recent DWI citation led to a breathalyzer being linked to his ignition. At 3 p.m., he blew a percentage so high that the van wouldn’t start.
For those familiar with The Love Language, this scenario should seem pretty standard. After all, the band’s self-titled 2009 debut charmed with fraught and feisty lo-fi shambles instigated by a pair of bad break-ups: There was the exit from his old band, The Capulets, after he drunkenly broke into their practice space and left behind blood, broken glass, and busted equipment, and the split with a girlfriend who inspired the bulk of the album’s jangly distress. Though the sounds were bigger, the vibe of 2010’s Libraries was largely the same, causing questions about McLamb’s past to persist.
“You’re going to show up and read the backstory, and that just sort of becomes what defines the project,” McLamb says, struggling for the right words to sum up his frustration. He’s tired of telling this tale. “I’m sure that story helped to sell the band and the first record. But it’s sort of ridiculous to think about. As an artist, you’re trying to work and stay creative, and that would be ridiculous to always have to write love songs. You can, but how do you feed that? Because a non-genuine love song would be the worst thing ever.”
McLamb sticks to that principle on Ruby Red. It’s The Love Language’s first LP in three years, and it arrives without a single love song. There are hints of romantic frustration, relationships that grind and gall in the way of coupled lovers, but there are no direct overtures to a girl that McLamb is hoping to get with, nor any barbs blasted at the last one that broke his heart. It’s a tremendous shift, one that the singer is thrilled to make, even if it might alienate part of his audience. (Below: McLamb, right, performs with the Love Language at a recent in-store appearance at Raleigh’s Schoolkids Records.)
“It’s really liberating,” he says, “just going out and doing interviews and not having to feel like I’m ultimately reading my diary and being that open about it. That first record came out of a real tender place with me and this other person involved, and it felt weird and kind of gross selling it out to do a lot of interviews about it. Everything felt a little too personal, so it’s really liberating to have a record where, more or less, these are just songs that I wrote when I got really stoned. It feels nice that there’s not a whole lot of emotional weight. It was just having fun for the first time.”
This sense of freedom and fun took hold during a 2011 trip to Black Mountain, a small Appalachian burg just east of Asheville, N.C. McLamb retreated to a cabin there that summer accompanied by former Love Language guitarist and Ruby Red producer BJ Burton. The two had become close while working on Libraries. With Stuart looking to demo new songs and BJ itching to work on his own solo material, they turned to each other for support. The nights were long and loud. One neighbor had to come by and bang on the door with a bicycle pump to get them to quiet down. McLamb left with rough outlines for several songs and a craving for relentless energy.
The resulting Ruby Red is a diverse album, moving from colorful garage tantrums to somber ballads graced by synths and strings. But by and large, these songs are driven by dominating rhythms, allowing McLamb to trip through contrasting styles without seeming clumsy. This is The Love Language in transition, determined to surpass the ‘60s-centric emotionalism of past outings, but not entirely sure of what the next phase should sound like. It’s a credit to McLamb’s knack for hooks and melody — as well as his irrepressible verve — that the record’s ill-advised detours never feel like failures.
“I guess I wanted the record to be more like a mixtape than a cohesive record,” McLamb explains. “The whole point of this is to stretch and to break the mold of what Love Language is, so I want to just go all over the place. It’s totally non-cohesive in a lot of ways.”
It’s far from focused, but Ruby Red — named for the now-vacated rehearsal spot where McLamb and Burton tracked most of the songs — is flush with promising new directions. “First Shot” sends the band ricocheting down a psych-rock hall of mirrors, riding a riff so huge it can barely be contained and a bass line that borrows krautrock momentum. It’s earworm pop as informed by Bay Area eccentrics like Thee Oh Sees, feral and fascinating in a way The Love Language has never been before.
“On Our Heels” is something else entirely. Cluttered with jittery drum machines and smoothed out by eerie, effect-laden strings, it keys on the gauzy grandeur of Libraries’ slow burners, but where that record conjured a sense of warmth and camaraderie, “On Our Heels” opts for technological detachment.
“I just want to get to a place where there’s just no expectations for what it would sound like,” McLamb offers. “I definitely think there will be some backlash from some people who are big fans of the early stuff. This is definitely the big, action-movie, explosions-and-helicopters-and-Godzilla record. It’s really big and going for it, and it was really fun to do that and not try to repeat myself.”
[Photos: top, by Jason Arthurs; live, by Fred Mills]